Kanzu: The Arab dress that became Ugandan

By Vision Reporter

Added 25th June 2012 12:06 PM

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and pro ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country.

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To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and pro ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country.


To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and pro ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOSEPH SSEMUTOOKE looks at how the earliest traders in East Africa played a role in the development of a traditional dress code. Starting with the kanzu and then the gomesi

The scene is of an evidently glamorous family ceremony underway beneath large, white tents. The locale is the homestead of Dr. Ivan Mukasa, one of the most respected residents of Namasuba village along Entebbe Road, Wakiso district in Buganda.

The occasion is the introduction ceremony of Mukasa’s daughter who has brought home her German fiancé, Ludwig Schneider. The two  met while studying at the University of Berlin.

The most intriguing bit is the sight of Ludwig Schneider’s entourage, comprised of almost only Caucasians, perfectly pulling off the traditional Buganda introduction ceremony dress code. The white men are all smartly clad in white tunics with neat jackets, the women are all elegantly clad in gomesis.

But this dress code could even be seen at a function in any part of Uganda. The kanzu and the gomesi have over the years been adopted as traditional and sometimes ceremonial dresses by many tribes in Uganda.

The adoption started with the Buganda before moving to Busoga, West Nile and Teso and now almost the entire country. The two garments are what could be called Uganda’s signature dress.

The kanzu in Uganda
The kanzu was fi rst introduced to Buganda Kingdom by Arab traders in the fi rst half of the 19th century.

It is believed that Kabaka Ssuuna, who is said to have reigned between 1832 and 1856, was the fi rst Kabaka to wear the tunic. It initially remained a dress of the highly-placed in society. It was for those who could afford to get it from the Arab traders and people living in the Kabaka’s court or the homes of chiefs.

The fi rst kanzus won in Buganda were Arabic robes, imported from Arabia and it stayed that way until the dress began to be adopted by the commoners.

The kanzu is modified
Initially the kanzu was imported and was made from either cotton or linen, a combination of reasons that kept it out of reach of the majority. But as time passed, it began trickling down to ordinary Baganda.

The men began making the kanzu from barkcloth, the traditional clothing material used then. With time, they began making it from cheaper fabrics like silk and poplin, which was brought in by Indian and Arab traders.

Today the kanzu is made from silk, cotton, poplin and linen. Linen kanzus are the most expensive.

While adopting the kanzu, the Baganda made some changes to its design, making their version different from all the other tunics worn around the world, especially those from its parent design from Arabia.

The most signifi cant addition to the kanzu by the Baganda was the embroidery added around the collar, abdomen and the sleeves. This embroidery, called Omulela, is unique to the Uganda kanzu and it is hand sewn.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Baganda also added the tradition of wearing a coat atop the kanzu. By picking the blazer from the dress culture of the Europeans, who were the colonial power then the Baganda created a hybrid of Arabian and British dress code.

The kanzu in Uganda today is worn in many areas complete with a coat, save for the Muslims who prefer to keep it as plain as the Arabs. However, some Muslims add a tarboosh on the head.

Adoption by the rest of Uganda
As Buganda’s culture spread to other areas of Uganda, the kanzu spread with it and could rightly be the ‘the unoffi cial national dress of Ugandan men’.

The history of the gomesi
The gomesi on the other hand is the kanzu’s equivalent for Ugandan women. 

The gomesi is a much more recent addition to the culture of Buganda and Uganda. But it has become equally symbolic and more representative since it is native to and only found in Uganda, while the kanzu is not.

The gomesi’s standard form is traced back to the 1940s when it was designed as a uniform for Gayaza High School. It is reported that the missionaries at Gayaza found the Kiganda attire worn by the students to be indecent as it exposed the torso.

The school administration thus enlisted the services of an Indian tailor from Goa, Fernando Gomes, who was based at a trading centre near the school to design a dress. The dress would also get its name from that tailor.

Apparently, Gomes was tasked with maintaining aspects of the Kiganda outfi t so he had to come up with a compromise between Western fashions and the Ganda sheet of cloth wrapped around the body and fastened with a small strip of cloth tied around the waist.

This, Gomes did by stitching a quasi-blouse, with a square neck line featuring two buttons opening on the left, to the extravagant sash, which held in place a sort of ample skirt. But since many of Gayaza’s students then were from well-placed families in society the gomesi found its way to the king’s and chiefs’ courts. 

The royals were so impressed with the new dress that they soon adopted it in their households. Apparently the garment was in time adopted by the masses, and later spread beyond Buganda.

Transformation of the gomesi
The gomesi was initially made from cotton, but as time went on other materials such as satin and silk were also used to make the gomesi. The current dominance of silk and satin are traced back to the 1960s, when Indian traders established that these were the best material for making the dress because they were light, colourful and more affordable than cotton.

Today the gomesi is undergoing several transformations. The most signifi cant is the latest development of the Nabagereka version, introduced by reigning Buganda Queen Sylvia Nagginda.

The Nabagereka version is reportedly lighter, uses less cloth, and is firm around the body.


Kanzu: The Arab dress that became Ugandan

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